Publish at February 25 2014 Updated June 07 2022

At work, trust by contract?

It is often forgotten, but trust is the basis of the employment contract. How do you maintain it to make the relationship last?

"We bind oxen by their horns and men by their words". These strong words smelling of rural France were uttered in the sixteenth century by Antoine Loysel and highlighted the uselessness, even insult, that any written contractualization could be to seal established relationships between trusted people. Much later in Great Britain, the famous Gentlemen's Agreement also fell under the same logic: it was an informal agreement made between honorable and trustworthy men who would never think of going back on the talk.

However, contractualization has developed in all sectors of human activity and this, as early as Roman antiquity at least, to secure the mutual obligations of the signatory parties (contract of obligation) or the transfer of property (commercial contract). The employment contract is a particular form of the common law contract that regulates the agreement between an employee and an employer, formalizes the subordination of the former to the latter.

Trust and work: on the side of the law...

Does this mean that the contract has replaced trust, a natural feeling that should be held by all those who decide to maintain a relationship in the long term and/or to carry out a task in common? Not at all. In fact, the contract is itself a testament to the existence of trust between the parties: trust that led them to do business together, trust that each will strive to meet their commitments over time, for the benefit of the common enterprise.

In what and in whom do the protagonists who bind themselves by an employment contract show their trust? The employee trusts that the employer will provide work and thus income, exercise power over him or her in the interest of the enterprise (and not personally), and ensure continued employability. The employer has confidence in the new employee, insofar as, by hiring him, he is literally entrusting him with a fraction of his company and its responsibilities.

The above is not part of the common discourse on the role of trust at work. Yet it is the legal fundamentals of the articulation between employment contract and trust, brilliantly exposed by Eric Loubet in a Master 2 thesis defended at the University Pantheon - Assas Paris II entitled "Trust and Employment Contract" and available online on the Petit Juriste website.

... And on the management side

In professional circles and the specialized press, then, it is rather common to complain about the deterioration or loss of trust in work teams, particularly between employees and their managers. This is to recognize its importance, but not necessarily to be aware that it is located at the very birth of the work relationship.

In France, the feeling of mistrust has largely exceeded the professional framework. In 2012, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg signed a book entitled "La fabrique de la défiance... et comment s'en sortir" which made a big splash well beyond the date of its publication, and in which they pointed out the many consequences of the generalized atmosphere of mistrust that reigns in the hexagon, particularly in terms of structural reforms and economic shortfalls.

In professional circles the feeling of mistrust, fed by the lack of recognition of competence and effort provided (another great classic), is detrimental to performance and is the source of much of the malaise felt by employees. Structural unemployment prevents employees who are dissatisfied with their working conditions from going elsewhere; management methods based on control, the organization of tasks that make them lose their meaning, the ever-increasing competition in many sectors, are all factors that hinder fulfillment and weigh heavily on relationships, generating postures of disengagement and generalized distrust.


The factors of trust in a work team are well known. They are remarkably well presented in a training module freely available online on the Emergency Capacity Biuilding Project website for... humanitarian workers. It is easy to understand that a team working in an emergency situation (natural disaster, conflict...) must maximize its efficiency. Trust between team members, who often did not know each other before the intervention and come from very different backgrounds, appears to be a crucial factor. The training module entitled "Building Trust in Diverse Teams" is available for free download and in French. It includes many tools and activities, as well as the list of Ten Criteria of Trust that we repeat here:

  1. Competence. I trust people who I think can do the job well.
  2. Openness. sharing information fosters trust.
  3. Integrity. People do what they set out to do.
  4. Reciprocity. We more easily trust those who trust us, and show it.
  5. Compatibility. Trust is fostered by a community of values, interests, and background.
  6. Goodwill. I care about my colleagues, I care about what they do and are.
  7. Predictability. Consistent behaviors over time facilitate trust.
  8. Wellness. I feel confident when I don't fear anything from the people I work with and when I don't feel judged.
  9. Inclusion. Efforts are made in the team to leave no one out.
  10. Accessibility. I can easily approach a colleague or a manager, I strive to be accessible to others.

Of course, these trust factors are to be built and reinforced, much more than to be considered as prerequisites. For trust, at the root of the contractual labor relationship, disappears if not nurtured...and wears out if not used.


Loubet, Eric. "Trust and the Employment Contract." Master 2 DJCE business lawyer, Université Panthéon - Assas Paris II, But 2009. Accessed February 25, 2014.

ECB Project. "Building Trust in Diverse Teams - ECB Project." Accessed February 25, 2014.

Illustration: Dooder,

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